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Posts Tagged ‘trauma’

When we were on retreat recently I was reading Francis of Assisi: A New Biography, by Augustine Thompson, OP. It sets out to be a historical reconstruction of his life, based on a huge number of historical studies over the last few decades. It’s not written with a destructive spirit, as if Thompson were trying to debunk the often beautiful mythology that has grown up around St Francis over the years. But it is trying to discover the authentic heart of the man, and the life that is presented here is both simpler and much more complex than the standard biographies that are based uncritically on much later and less reliable sources.

assisi

Many things struck me and stayed with me: How Francis’s conversion was inseparable from his first-hand experience of war, violence and imprisonment when he went to battle as a young man; the relationship between psychological trauma and spiritual awakening and healing.

Those beautiful stories about Francis walking into a church and hearing the gospel call to poverty and radical discipleship are true. But they were not the scripture readings of the liturgy of the day. There was a tradition of Christians coming to the priest for guidance, and asking him to him to open the scriptures three times at random, and in this way picking three passages from the bible that would somehow cohere and provide direction for the one who asked. This is how the Lord spoke so powerfully to Francis about the call to evangelical simplicity and obedience.

How difficult his gradual conversion must have been for his family. His father comes across not as a worldly tyrant but as a concerned father who doesn’t know how to react to his son’s apparent psychological disintegration and the consequent implosion of his family business.

How unsure Francis was about his new way of life. It’s very clear from this reconstruction that when he first went to see the pope to have his ‘rule’ approved he had no intention to preach. The preaching mission came from the pope, and he followed it obediently.

It’s true that poverty was a central theme in Francis’s vision and lifestyle. But according to Thompson it was not the theological key. Francis, according to the historical sources, spent far more time preaching and teaching and sometimes writing about the Holy Eucharist and the Catholic priesthood than he did about poverty. He was captivated by the idea that Christ was present in our midst in the Mass and in the reserved Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacles of every Catholic church throughout the world. He showed the utmost respect to Catholic priests, fully aware of their weaknesses, because he believed that they represented Christ sacramentally for the Christian faithful.

He was horrified when he came across a church or chapel that was in a state of disrepair. It he found any altar linen that was dirty he would take it away to wash it. If he found any sacred books that contained the scriptures discarded on the floor he would put them in a more worthy place. When we hear that Francis was called to rebuild/repair God’s church we often think that this was a metaphor for a spiritual renewal of the church, which of course it was in many ways. But we forget that Francis’s first concern, which never left him, was to make the actual church buildings into sacred spaces that would be worthy for the liturgy and the presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

And I learnt how much Francis suffered, especially in the last years of his life through sickness. I knew this already, but the extent of the suffering comes across in this biography: the discomfort, the heartache, the sheer agony that Francis often lived through. He was a broken man at the end, but a man fully alive. The joy and the simplicity are there, but in this book they shine out of a very earthy humanity.

I’m not saying these are the central themes of the book or of St Francis’s life. They are just some of the ideas that made an impression on me that hadn’t come across so strongly in other biographies I’ve read. It’s a fascinating book – do read it yourself.

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I had a great discussion on Sunday with a group of young adults about the morality/wisdom of telling your children that Father Christmas exists and delivers their presents each year.

 

Is it a form of lying? Is it, rather, a kind of mythology or fairy-tale that does no more harm than reading them bedtime stories, and actually does them good in helping them to develop their imagination and sense of wonder? Is it simply harmless? Or does it lead to a traumatic break in child-parent trust when they finally realise that the reality they have been told about by their parents is simply not true?

And – an extra question for Christian parents – if you are telling them stories about Santa Claus and Jesus at the same time, with the same awe-struck tone of voice, does it mean that the Jesus stories crumble as easily as the Santa ones a few years later?

I think your answer partly depends on your own experience. Some people never really believed in Santa anyway; there was some sixth sense that told them it was just a story, an act of make-believe. Some people really are traumatised when they discover The Big Lie that everyone around them has been conspiratorially involved in; and there is a questioning of what it means to trust their parents.

Others, much more low-key, remember a sense of disappointment and minor shock when they found out – they made a connection for themselves, or a big brother or sister told them, or they found the presents in their parents’ wardrobe the week before.

The other issue that came up was the fact that your decision as parents has an influence on others. Does it mean that your enlightened three-year old goes into the play group and tells all the other children it’s all a load of nonsense – to the consternation of the other parents?

Me? I can’t remember ever believing it – Santa Claus; reindeer; coming down the chimney; etc. I’m not saying I never did, I just can’t remember; and I can’t remember a moment of discovering it wasn’t true. My memories, perhaps quite late (5 or 6 years old?) are longing to fall asleep, knowing that mum and dad wouldn’t bring the presents in before then.

Comments please! Did it traumatise you? What do you tell your own children about Santa?

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Since the 40 Days for Life vigil during Lent, I have been thinking not so much about the morality of abortion, but more about its effects on individual women and men, and on society as a whole. I read for the second time the seminal book by Theresa Burke, Forbidden Grief: The Unspoken Pain of Abortion – I’ll try to post about this later, together with something about Rachel’s Vineyard.

But the book that really hit me was a collection of personal experiences from Australia collected together by Melinda Tankard Reist, called Giving Sorrow Words: Women’s Stories of Grief After Abortion.

In some ways it is a much harder read than Forbidden Grief, because there is not the faith perspective, so many of the women find no resolution or reconciliation, just an outpouring of grief with nowhere to go. Even this heartbreaking acknowledgement of what they have truly been experiencing, however, seems a gain, compared to suffering in silence or having their grief denied.

Reist put an advert in various Australian magazines and newspapers asking for women who would share their experiences of the effects an abortion had had on their lives.

Two hundred and fifty responded, and many said that for the first time in their lives just seeing the heading of the advertisement (‘Abortion Grief’) had itself given them permission to open up, perhaps for the first time, what they had been going through. Eighteen stories then found their way into the book, to represent the breadth and depth of the responses, with many more quoted in Reist’s Introduction.

Reist’s Introduction sets out some of the convictions she had as a pro-life feminist before she started – convictions that were reinforced as the project came to fruition.

The women who tell their stories here have all suffered abortion-related grief: a depth of grief they were not prepared for and which many still carry.

But they go unheard. Emotional trauma after an abortion is treated with disdain; dismissed by abortion’s advocates as an invention…

Conventional wisdom has it that abortion is mostly trouble-free. Because of this, those who are troubled are made – indeed, often forced to be – invisible.

The grief of the women documented in this book is real. But their stories, and the stories of women like them, have been disqualified – even by those who say we must listen to women’s voices and credit women’s experiences.

Attitudes towards women overwhelmed by grief following abortion demonstrate a cruel indifference to women’s pain. Their suffering is considered a figment of their imagination; their guilt and remorse a byproduct of social/religious conditioning. In short, they are an embarrassment.

There is another constraint on their expression of grief. The politics surrounding abortion has drowned out the voices of women harmed by it. Women whose lives are shattered by the abortion experience… are cast aside as over-sensitive, psychologically unstable, big teams of socially constructed guilt. Their experience is trivialised.

A woman’s abortion pain is discounted and minimised due to the prevailing view that a termination is really no big deal, ‘just a currette’, an easy fix. Abortion is promoted by many who dominate the discourse on the subject as a procedure without repercussions. Because of this, attempts to discuss women’s abortion suffering have been constrained.

Suffering post-aborted women feel a resentment towards a society which ignores or neglects their suffering. They are not allowed to acknowledge or mourn their loss openly. The disdain for women suffering after-abortion trauma sends the message: you’re only upset because you’ve chosen to get upset…

This sort of response to women’s abortion-related suffering makes them feel they’re being melodramatic, over-sensitive, attention-seeking. But many women are suffering emotionally from a procedure which was portrayed as emotionally benign. They are filled with feelings of self-loss, daily haunted by their abortion experience…

Their arms feel empty, they don’t like looking at babies, they often cry. They ask: What would my baby have looked like? Was it a boy or a girl? Would-have-been birthdays are quietly marked year after year.

As Margaret Nicol points out in her important work on maternal grief, it is a myth that a mother only bonds with her child after birth. A woman never forgets the pregnancy and the baby that might have been. When the baby is lost and there are no memories of visible reminders of the baby, ‘The feeling of emptiness and nothingness becomes pervasive and it is this an easy and anxious avoid that makes women wonder if they’re going crazy.’

I’m sorry the book is not more widely available in this country. There are a just three copies here on Amazon UK from other sellers as I write.

But hang on: I just found these excerpts from the book here – well worth looking at:

Excerpt 1: “This Wasn’t Really Counseling At All”


Excerpt 2: Disclosure and Coercion


Excerpt 3: “They Didn’t Prepare Me for the Horror”


Excerpt 4: “A Conspiracy of Silence”

I don’t know much about Reist. You can see her website here.

And just in case you see this and don’t see a follow up post about Rachel’s Vineyard, you can see their website here, which offers support to women and men who have suffered an abortion. The Good Counsel Network help-page is here (they are based in London). And the ARCH website is here (Abortion Recovery Care and Helpline) – I don’t know much about them, but I saw a leaflet for their services recently.

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Is boarding school bad for you? Stefanie Marsh, in a trenchant and fairly one-sided article, looks at the work of psychotherapist Joy Schaverien. In her paper ‘Boarding School: The Trauma of the Privileged Child’, Schaverien claims to identify something called Boarding School Syndrome, an emotional dysfunction stemming primarily from the trauma of early separation from one’s parents, that manifests itself in intimacy problems in later life.

Eton College

In Schaverien’s words:

Parents bankrupt themselves to send their children to school when they are just babies really. This is a terrible burden for the child. But it is like sending a child into care. Nowadays there are duvets on the beds and they are allowed teddy bears but it doesn’t make up for the fact that children leave their mothers, their primary attachment figures, when they are essentially still babies.

Stefanie Marsh fills in some of the psychological details:

‘Attachment theory’, a core tenet of contemporary psychology, was formulated by the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby, who, in the Second World War, observed the effects on children who had lost parents or been evacuated. During the 1980s, his theories were extrapolated and applied to adults – separation anxiety and grief in childhood, it is now commonly held, can create different ‘attachment styles’ in adult romantic relationship: secure-avoidant, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant.

Boarding school ‘survivors’, as they have been collectively termed by the psychotherapist Nick Duffell, are said to most frequently exhibit avoidant styles, viewing themselves as self-sufficient, invulnerable to attachment feelings and not needing close relationships. Often they suppress their feelings, cope with rejection by distancing themselves from partners or feel uncomfortable with emotional or physical closeness.

So this isn’t about identifying particular problems that can develop in the culture of a boarding school, it’s about the very fact of being separated from one’s parents at an ‘early’ age. I think the focus is more on those who board at ‘prep’ school, i.e. those who leave home not at 13, but sometime between the ages of 7 and 13. (David Cameron went to board at prep school at age 7; Stephen Fry at 7; Boris Johnson at 9; Price William at 8; Sienna Miller at 8…)

What do you think? What’s your own experience? Is there another side to this story?

[Times, Modern section, 23 June, pp. 4-5; subscription only]

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I came across another thoughtful article by Mary Kenny, this time about how we have lost touch with the importance of feeling sad, and our sensitivity to the different shades of sadness that can come upon us has been dulled.

Prince Hamlet

Depression, thank goodness, is much better understood than it used to be. And we are much more likely than we used to be to express our feelings to others. But our emotional vocabulary has become diminished.

Take the word, “trauma,” which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be “in trauma”.

“Trauma” comes from the Greek word for a “wound”, and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life’s sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason, thinks Mary Kenny, is that we are losing touch with the social rituals that have allowed us to express these feelings.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: “Ferme pour deuil”: closed for mourning.

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures – widows’ weeds, black armbands – and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called “trauma”.

And she thinks it would help us if we could recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the emotional difficulties we face in the ordinary course of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as “neurasthenia”; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as “nervous debility”, or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

“Anomie” was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called “accidie” much brooded on by some of the saints – this was “dryness of the soul”. The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz - a yearning sense of “world-sorrow” and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays – the exile’s yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness – but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

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